“Cinema’s characteristic forte is its ability to capture and communicate the intimacies of the human mind”— Satyajit Ray
Filmmaking at its best is a vehicle of communication, an empathetic exercise in education, expanding our knowledge through the experiences of lives we have never lived. Historical accounts help us to form a fortification of understanding toward contemporary issues, whilst stories of recent lived experiences add to our ever-improving perception of the world around us.
From the early 20th-Century films of Oscar Micheaux and Gordon Parks to the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton toward the turn of the new millennium, black filmmakers have been creating art that portrays the realities of their lived experiences. Poised against a society poisoned with systemic racism, these films challenged social injustice and the abuse of authoritative power, and continue to do so in a contemporary society which suffers from the same systemic issues.
Speaking to the immediate realities of modern life, contemporary black filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins and Ava Duvernay continue in the protest and confrontation of these sociological issues. In the past month, this conversation has been heightened by the deaths of both George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, two innocent black men murdered by white assailants in separate racist attacks.
As vehicles of communication, empathy and education, the following films directed by black filmmakers, offer a greater understanding of the realities of the black experience in contemporary life.
Watch these essential films from five modern masters of cinema, each one confronting systemic racism with power and poetry:
13th – Ava DuVernay, 2016
Tracing a history of racial inequality, from the pre-20th Century to modern-day America, Ava DuVernay’s expansive Netflix documentary casts a spotlight on the United State’s prison system, detailing its injustices rooted in the 13th amendment.
Spanning across over a century of history, DuVernay’s film is dense in information, though moves at pace to retain its clarity and focus. The film’s power is in its unwavering impact, drawing disturbing parallels with contemporary life and the overt racism of the early 20th-Century.
To coincide with the current Black Lives Matters movement, Netflix have released13th as a free film to stream through YouTube.
You can see the film in its entirety, below.
Fruitvale Station – Ryan Coogler, 2013
From Ava DuVernay’s detailed breakdown of the injustice of the American prison system, to the real-life biographical account of the murder of Oscar Grant, an innocent black man killed at the hands of white law enforcement.
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station focuses less on the impending fate of its central character, and more on the protagonist’s private life, highlighting his humble, innocent humanity, therefore positioning the tragedy of his death as something severely personal and agonising.
Get on the Bus – Spike Lee, 1996
Of the many films Spike Lee has made tackling racial injustice, from 1989’s Do the Right Thing to 2018’s BlackKkKlansman, it is his overlooked 1996 film Get on the Bus which continues to carry a particular power and unfortunate relevance to recent tragedies.
Following 20 black men on a coach journey from L.A to Washington D.C for the Million Man March, Lee’s film is a cinematic conversation, led by a host of varied and complex characters.
Their physical journey across America becomes a spiritual one, delicately written by screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, examining class, politics and much more through a poetic eye.
If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins, 2018
Director of the best picture Oscar winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins is a master of the minimal, with his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk evoking the same love and careful craft as its predecessor.
This compelling love story, based on the book of the same name from 1974, tells the story of a man committed of a crime he didn’t commit and the life of his pregnant lover left behind to fight for justice.
Jenkins, through direction and a fantastic adapted screenplay, takes us on an empathetic journey of spirited love in the face of oppressive prejudice, in a truly gentle, absorbing piece of filmmaking.
Of Monsters and Men – Reinaldo Marcus Green, 2018
Focusing on the aftermath of violent crime as opposed to its contextual imminence, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s directorial debut Of Monsters and Men holds a mirror to Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.
Following the aftermath of a black man’s murder at the hands of a white police officer, the film tracks the lives of three unique individuals linked to the incident, an innocent bystander, a black police officer and a young local baseball player.
Each of the three individuals are vividly realised by Green’s complex and compassionate script and are brought to tangible light by the fantastic respective performances.